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What is the Jewish view on trees?

by Rabbi Mendy Hecht

  

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Besides being Judaism's morality manual, the Torah might also be called the "total-planet system." This is because Planet Earth consists of the Animal, Vegetable and Mineral Kingdom (with Man being above all three), and the Torah instructs us how to be sensitive to all things around us, trees included. Bearing this in mind, let's take a look at the Torah's take on trees.

Forbidden Fruit

Negative Mitzvah #192 instructs us to not eat of a tree's fruits during its first three years of existence1. Fruits on a tree less than three years old are referred to as Orlah (pronounced OAR-law). This is how we relate to the part of us within that is like a tree--just like a young tree needs a minimum of time and space to spread its branches, sink its roots and become productive, so too do our youth require a protected zone in which they can flourish before interacting with the world about them. Plucking fruits off a young sapling not only drains it of its creative powers, but also permanently stunts its recovery. Same with our kids.

The War of the Trees

Now here's a hot issue if there ever was one: are loggers evil? Was Julia Butterfly Hill a lunatic for living for two years in a tree named Luna? Again, we refer to the Torah to guide us through the confusion our minds create, because both sides have great arguments and it takes the objective mind of G-d to declare what's right. So, between all logging and no trees, or no logging and all trees, the Torah takes a middle-of-the-road view: we may cut down trees, but responsibly and nondestructively.

An example of this is seen in Negative Mitzvah #57, which says not to cut down any fruit-bearing trees while putting a city under siege.2 Although there is a clear need for wood, fruit trees consist of more than wood and it would therefore be destructive and wasteful to log a fruit tree. Conversely, here (and where) non-fruit-baring trees can provide for a human need, they may be transformed into that need. The Talmud, Halachah and Jewish tradition expand upon the concept of waste greatly. Based on the above mitzvah, Halachah3 forbids destroying anything for simply no reason--one may not throw out or play with food, destroy quality used clothes or functional devices/items, spend money uselessly... or chop down trees for no good reason.

Grafting Trees

Negative Mitzvah #216 expands our relationship with trees. This one prohibits grafting trees by planting the seeds of two different species together, or by laying their roots upon each other so that they merge to produce a third, hybrid tree. One may benefit from the fruits of someone else's grafting labors, though--hence there is no prohibition to eat fruits of mixed pedigree.

Footnotes

  • 1. Leviticus 19:23
  • 2. Deuteronomy 20:19
  • 3. See for example Maimonidies laws of Kings 6:8-10
TAGS: tree, trees

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Mitzvah
(pl. Mitzvot). A commandment from G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Talmud
Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.
Halachah
Jewish Law. All halachah which is applicable today is found in the Code of Jewish Law.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.